How to Partner with African Churches Well: An Interview with Ken Mbugua
How should Western churches partner with churches in Africa? Mike Christ—the dean of the Central Africa Baptist University in Zambia—recently interviewed Ken Mbugua—the lead pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Nairobi—about this question. Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Mike Christ: You lead Ekklesia Afrika, which developed out of a burden for theological education for pastors. How did God give you that burden?
Ken Mbugua: I did an internship in 2014 at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC and came back with a strong desire to see healthy churches spread across the continent, starting with East Africa. The internship was heavy on books. It laid a burden on me that, by helping pastors read and discuss good books, a lot of fruit could come.
So that’s where we started. We invited a couple of partners to Nairobi and laid out the vision. We began by saying we wanted to set up a resource hub because we noticed that in Africa resources are not available, affordable, or accessible. When they are available, often they are too expensive for most African pastors. When they are affordable, they’re still not very accessible. Our long-term goal is for Ekklesia Afrika to become a full-fledged publishing company that does more than just print US resources. We want Africans writing for an African audience.
Over 80% of pastors in Africa do not have access to theological education. We want to help these pastors be competent so that they will give a good account on that last day.
We’ve developed a program called Soma. We simply took a stack of good books and arranged them into five units. We help the pastor build convictions about God’s Word, what the local church is, pastoral theology, and biblical and systematic theology. So much error can be addressed simply by understanding how Genesis to Revelation works together. The systematic theology is aimed at African issues, chiefly the prosperity gospel. Then we wrap up with missions.
The pastors receive a book a month, with accompanying study guides. For each book, they write a one-page report. Then they sit down with other pastors for a Socratic discussion. We think this is the best way to contextualize. The pastor has read the book about church membership. He’s written a paper. Now we have him sit at a table and talk about it with other pastors. If this is biblical, what would church membership look like in this village?
Mike Christ: Could you walk us through the different levels of education that are realistic and needed in your context?
Ken Mbugua: We could divide it into three levels of pastors. There’s a group of pastors who are not even showing up in this conversation. These are the guys who aren’t literate. They’re godly men. They qualify, according to 1 Timothy. They can help people in their church know how to follow Jesus in their discipling relationships.
With Ekklesia, and with our program Soma (“study” in Swahili), we’re targeting people who can read fairly well, enough to write a paper and discuss it.
The next level is guys who are doing something like a diploma or undergrad degree. Think Bible college. There are many good Bible colleges in Africa, and those will still help with the basics: an introduction to expository preaching, some hermeneutics, a general Bible overview.
But then there’s the next level, and this is where you don’t have much going on. These would be schools that are training up scholars for Africa, the guys who will go to war for theological truths, against things like open theism or African types of liberalism. These are the guys whose books pastors like me could recommend to people in our church when a new heretic comes to town. We have hardly any schools on this continent laboring to produce students of that caliber. And we need to have that.
Take the books that we’re distributing. Those who can write books like that are very well skilled in research, thinking, and argumentation and brilliant enough to simplify it for the masses. What happens, then, is that you have an entire continent that is still being discipled primarily by Western voices.
That’s not the best. I don’t think that’s all bad, because it’s the same Bible, and truth transcends cultures, geography, and time. At the same time, there’s something locally distinctive to how churches are designed by God.You don’t have a pope somewhere in New York speaking truth to guys in Nairobi. You have local churches. That concept should tell us the importance of raising up local leadership at every level. And at that last level of pastor-scholars, we are really lacking.
Mike Christ: To clarify, you do have some African scholars with PhDs. And they are writing books. Maybe you don’t find them all helpful. You mentioned African liberalism. What’s going on in that world of African higher-level scholarship that in some ways tends to be all about Africa?
Ken Mbugua: I’ll give an example. I was invited to a gathering of academic deans and heads of theological schools from across the continent. These were all IMB theological schools. And I was surprised by the kinds of things people are teaching. The smartest guys in the room were some of the most concerning. Their approach to truth, their epistemology, is not grounded in the Scriptures. It starts with culture.
Often there is a mixing of this “we are Africans,” pan-African spirit. It’s “Jesus ran away to Africa when things were bad in Israel” type of stuff. That African pride gets worked into the theology, and it stops being biblical Christianity. It becomes more important to make it African. They can’t look at the last 2,000 years and identify with anybody there because they’re so focused on making this African. It’s an African view of the atonement, an African view of the local church.
I presented a paper about congregationalism at that venue, and I was amused. There was a PhD in the room, a graduate of Southeastern Theological Seminary, who may have been theologically closest to us. Her number one critique of my paper was, “That’s fine, but that will not work in Africa, because in Africa, people want a chief. Decisions are not made by the village.” I’m thinking, “Wow, I labored all the way from Genesis to the end to show how this is the way God has established the local church.” And she didn’t disagree with anything from the Bible. But, «Nope, that won’t work, because it’s not African.»
Sadly, that’s what African scholarship looks like right now. You can see it in even the commentaries and study Bibles that evangelicals push. Those things are still reeking with that African theology thing.
Mike Christ: There are obviously deep and complex reasons for that. I wonder if some of it is because, on the continent, while there are opportunities for PhDs, there are very few PhDs in biblical or systematic studies. Thus you might have PhDs in culture and missions and African studies who are having the conversation without the voice of scholars in biblical studies. Is that part of it?
Ken Mbugua: Yes. You want to start off with mastering the biblical text as much as possible. Learn those languages. Understand what this book is to the bone marrow. Then build everything else on top of that. If we did, we’d not be as afraid to hear an African view of this or that. So yes, PhDs in biblical studies and languages would greatly aid these conversations about African theology.
Mike Christ: I’ve heard you say elsewhere that theological education is a significant way in which the West can help in missions. Why is that?
Ken Mbugua: The population of Christians in Africa is huge. But in general, the church is still weak in its ability to guard and proclaim the true gospel.
Whereas we could continue to invest in spreading the work in Africa (and that’s valid), the work we don’t want to neglect is laboring and praying that we could, if it pleases the Lord, see that the existing churches grow strong. So much work has already been done in seeing those hundreds of thousands, if not millions upon millions of believers, exist. But we often move on too quickly, leaving African Christians limping and unable to join us in the charge against the enemy. So theological education should, I think, become the new primary focus when people talk about Africa.
For example, in the work we do with Ekklesia Afrika, we don’t actually need a Western pastor to come and train at a village in Kenya. It’s fine if they come. We can happily do that, just to be clear. But that’s not where the need is. Many Kenyan pastors can do that. When you talk about Bible colleges, again, we have many capable African men for that work. There’s still room there for Western missionaries, too. Amen to that. But that’s not the screaming need.
Where we need the most help is raising up scholars. We have almost no local resources to set up institutions to raise men to that level. If you want to think strategically about the continent, think primarily about cities, where there might be the caliber of students who could hack it at that level, and think about how we might, if the Lord allows, equip them.
Mike Christ: I’ve heard you talk about two kinds of partnerships. One kind is where Westerners come in with the strategy all figured out. They more or less just want you to sell it to your people. The other kind is where people come in and have questions about how to help, and there’s a genuine back-and-forth. Could you flesh that out?
Ken Mbugua: To be honest, I feel this danger a lot with the massive Reformed evangelical brands. Once you have a logo and a name next to it, there’s pressure to show why you exist, especially to your donors at the end of the year.
Take church planting. Emmanuel Baptist Church has invested time, money, and effort in raising up church planters. Our church members have invited these brothers in and had dinners with them. We’ve spent time with them. They’ve been on staff. A year or more has passed. Our members have given their money to send them out to establish churches—only for those churches to be recognized under an international church planting organization.
These are churches that Emmanuel Baptist Church planted, start to finish. We supported those guys at around 80% of their total funding. But now they belong to this international organization.
For example, I was invited to go and speak at an event in Dubai from a church planting organization. They say, “We’ll have some of our church planters coming in from East Africa.” I’m thinking, “Yes, two of the families are actually coming from Emmanuel Baptist Church. We’ve raised them up, and we’ll be supporting and sending them out.” But that organization is saying that these are their church planters from the region.
Our elders don’t care much about this. Churches are being planted. We’re not super concerned about what logo or label is going on them. But I’m wondering: is this actual, meaningful work that they desire to do? It’s almost piggybacking on work that local churches are already doing. The question has not been asked to those churches: are we needed here?
There are local churches here that are planting other local churches. Maybe that’s not happening everywhere. But it’s happening here. So a question they might ask is, “Hey, you guys are doing good work. Could we help you? Look at what we have. Could we partner with you to make it a great work?”
In so many cases, Western organizations land in places like Nairobi with the apparent aim of growing their brand. Churches like ours almost become a hindrance because we are already doing a lot of those things. We’ve talked with partners who have the whole thing figured out before they come to Africa. They’re just looking for people to roll out their ideas on our continent.
So it’s a failure to respect what God has done. It’s not about Ken or Emmanuel Baptist Church. Think about it: God is able to raise up a people for himself around the world. This ought to be an opportunity to celebrate and say, “Wow, look in this town in Zimbabwe, Zambia, or Kenya—a healthy local church that is doing the work. Praise be to the Lord!” That doesn’t need our brand slapped on it.
I get the whole brand thing. Take Ekklesia Afrika. We’re in three countries now. We’re hoping to get to three more countries next year, and—maybe it’s my two-year-old who will eventually fulfill this vision—our aim is someday to be in every African country. And we’ve got a logo.
But I’ve seen this dude called Mark Dever who thinks in such upside-down ways. I hope and pray that we get that same spirit of being willing either to fail or to invest where our brand will never really be known, where the results may not show up in a reportable way at the end of the year. Unless that mindset defines your approach, you probably are doing it wrong.
Mike Christ: It reminds me of what I heard someone say: it’s amazing how much kingdom work you can get done when nobody cares who gets credit for it. You must find it odd if you meet a Westerner who raised a lot of money to come here, and you’re thinking, “That’s exactly what my church is doing. There are actually five other churches already doing that.” That must be an awkward conversation.
Ken Mbugua: That’s why I want to emphasize that I think a lot of money, effort, and time ought to be spent on the extreme ends: to reach the unreached, and to equip the pastor-scholars, to raise up those voices who will help the leaders of leaders. Get those guys—those MDivs, ThMs, and PhDs—here, on this continent.
Mike Christ: It strikes me, though, that those extreme ends are the hardest. It means either getting a PhD and mastering a lot or going to some really tough, dangerous places. That’s a harder sell than “come to a comfortable city and have some Bible studies with people as your job.”
Ken Mbugua: Yes. When I’m in the States, many young people will say to me, “I really want to come out to Africa and become a missionary.” I’ll say, “Go get a PhD.” That seems like the most ludicrous thing you could ever say. Like, are you even a Christian? But I’d say, either that or think about going among the unreached.
Because, to be honest, we don’t need you to come and do that teaching from Colossians. We have John Musyimi in our church. I don’t know if you know him, but he can preach your socks off. And Christian Lwanda and Vincent Kajuma. These are just brothers in our church.
Mike Christ: I want to flesh out the nuance of what you’re saying. On the one hand, most pastors don’t have an education, and the resources are unaffordable, unavailable, or inaccessible. On the other hand, you’re saying, let’s not act as though there’s nothing here. So flesh that out: there is need here, and yet there are resources here, too.
Ken Mbugua: Many African students are applying year by year to schools in the US, because they are jealous for the church in Africa. This is the same God, the same Spirit, the same Word, and they want a fair shot at doing the work. And they look at the Bible schools here and think, ”These are good schools, but they won’t really get me to where I’m trying to go.”
But the people who actually manage to go are a fraction. Far more often, people have to settle for something here. Then, when you hear them talk about their experience in school here, they’re not very excited about it.
The other thing is that there are actually a few good PhDs teaching on the ground here in Kenya. They are just scattered.
So there is an opportunity to galvanize these two elements. First, bring together the few good men who are on the ground with quality PhDs, while beefing up the program with adjunct professors flying in and out. Second, get that cohort of solid African students who have what it takes to do a ThM at a Westminster but who can’t make it there. If you put those two things together, I think there’s a legitimate opportunity to start something of a quality we haven’t seen at least in Kenya. I don’t want to sound as though this has never been attempted. But there aren’t many places in Africa—especially not that are more Reformed and evangelical—where you could go for a Westminster Theological Seminary-level education. That’s what we want.
Mike Christ: So you want a partner to come over who recognizes the need and sees how they can help, but also recognizes the way God has worked in people’s lives, what they are doing with the education they do have, and that they are ready to be trained.
Ken Mbugua: That’s the excitement in my heart. I look at some of those brothers and think, ”What if? What if they got that education?” Man, these guys are already doing so much with the little they have.
Mike Christ: In your church, you’ve got multiple guys on staff, excellent preachers. Our family has been fed and blessed. We’re so happy to be there. Yet nobody has an MDiv.
Ken Mbugua: Not one.
Mike Christ: And they have very little knowledge of the original languages or formal training in theology. And that’s not made them unfaithful in any way. They’re qualified; they’re doing great work. And we don’t want to idolize education, right? But what if these guys had more education? What would be different?
Ken Mbugua: To me the primary opportunity is to see a family of Africans raised up to fill the space that right now is still occupied by Western voices. We won’t stop loving R.C. Sproul or Mark Dever. But you have an opportunity here to see a good group of African men rise up to fill that space, to be writing and speaking and, in many ways, leading leaders whom perhaps they’ve never even met.
So no, we don’t want to over-elevate the importance of theological education. But there’s an opportunity here to shape what kind of impact these brothers may have across the continent.
Mike Christ: It feels as though the need for theological education is greatest where people have the least access to it. There are heresies in America and Europe and everywhere. But where you are, you have the prosperity gospel, the rise of Islam, the difficult negotiation between African traditional religion and culture. These are tough questions that require a lot of theological precision. And while not every African pastor will be trained in the same way, you would have that community of pastor-theologians lead those conversations.
Ken Mbugua: Yes. For instance, it’s shocking when you think about the prosperity gospel. It has ravaged the continent, yet if you go to the bookshelf to look for African books addressing it, they’re very few. There ought to be curriculums for local churches, but there aren’t. We’re still using resources from the West, and resources from the West are dealing primarily with problems in the West. So there are issues on the continent that go unaddressed because African voices aren’t leading in that space.
Mike Christ: Thinking more about partnerships, I’ve heard in the US a conversation going on about how to give aid to Africa in such a way that doesn’t make Africa the perpetually needy partner. You can end up having people’s jobs, salaries, and identities in the West oriented entirely toward helping Africa, and you establish these identities of, one, being the one who gives and, the other, the one who gets. And the cycle never ends. What would you say about establishing a partnership at the front end in such a way that we don’t solidify those identities as non-mutual?
Ken Mbugua: A few things. First, I’ve always been afraid of people who talk about ministry in ways that are almost purely monetary. Look out for potential partners who say they can do nothing until the “Benjamins” arrive. You probably want to find people who are already doing something with what they have.
Second, you want to see people giving more than just their time and energy. The Bible shows that even the poor have money. We are all called to worship God with what he has given us, whether it’s two mites or like the church in Macedonia. So, when you consider partnerships, you want to evaluate: do you guys believe in this work enough to get behind it with your own resources, as well as your own time and energy?
Lastly, the church needs to get more relaxed about money. Sometimes we’re preoccupied with worries like setting a bad precedent. But the critical thing here is trust. Without trust, you probably shouldn’t be thinking about money. So get to know people, get to know those churches, how they handle the gospel, what is their character. Let trust be the foundation of that relationship. Money stops becoming something we’re terrified about once we know the character is there. At the end of the day, your only confidence is that you have found partners who fear and love God just as you do, whom you can trust to put these resources to good use.
Speaking about Americans, there’s a lot of money in the church there. To whom much is given, much is expected. How can all that money be used well, for spiritual good that will last into eternity? We should be comfortable saying, “There’s a lot of need over there and a lot of resources here. Let’s try to match those two things.”
Mike Christ: You mentioned trust as being key. If somebody is reading this and has no connections with anybody in Africa but is interested, what advice would you give regarding how to develop those sorts of trusted relationships?
Ken Mbugua: Invest money in developing trusted relationships. That may mean flights abroad—to Asia, Africa, South America. Go with some fellow elders and meet people. See the work. Report back to your church.
Then, with brothers like me who travel around, have those guys come to your church. Have them sit with elders over lunch, or stay at an elder’s place over a weekend, or preach in your church. There’s something that happens there that’s not so much about the length of time but about finding a kindred spirit. Something just clicks, and you know that we are brothers, that we have the same heart, the same mind, the same aim.
And don’t ignore the basics: finances, accountability, reporting. We’re not sending this money to Ken Mbugua’s account, right? You can’t do stuff like that. I’ve often seen people set up financial relationships with zero accountability, and it really messes up. If I’m raising money for Ekklesia Afrika, send the money to Ekklesia Afrika. Ask questions. Do you have a board? Is there a system in place for how checks are signed and money moves around?
Mike Christ: Let me sketch out a profile here. I know several people in the US—maybe they got their PhD, they’ve mastered a certain area, they’re local pastors, and they’re fruitful in their ministry. They’re also teaching at an RTS or Southern or Westminster. You want some of them to come over here, I gather. What kind of appeal would you give to them? What caution?
Ken Mbugua: The guys you just described—and that’s not many—likely have many opportunities to speak here and there.
Mike Christ: Those guys would often be happy to come over for a week to teach a modular class. But to fully do what you’re describing, we would need some to come over on a more permanent basis.
Ken Mbugua: Yes. You want to focus your efforts for a sufficient amount of time to be able to see the good that can only come from sustained effort. It’s not the kind of stuff you’ll get done when you go here and go there. That’s fine; it’s good to rack up some miles on the passport. But the kind of work that can be done in 10, 15 , 20 years of sustained effort, there’s beauty in that type of excellence and diligence, which I think the Lord honors.
I would love to invite as many of that crop of pastor-scholars who would consider a work like this to prayerfully ask if this is something that the Lord would have them invest their time in, and to think about it as an opportunity that is worth the necessary sacrifice. Because that’s what it will take: sacrifice. This is a buy-a-home kind of decision. There is a legitimate opportunity to significantly impact the church in Africa, perhaps for decades. It’s at least worth considering and praying about what it would take to do this well.
On our side, we’re asking for a lot. But for what we’re praying for, that’s what it will take. It will take a certain level of financial capital, human resources, time, and local churches committing an undue percentage of their resources. There’ll be a lot of hardships down this path. But we want to stick to this and say, Lord, what we’re praying for is to see you raise up pastor-scholars, in Africa for Africa.
We’ve seen this happen in church history. We have men whose books are still read today, who are blessing us hundreds of years later. Lord, would you smile upon this continent and allow us—me as a pastor, and us as a local church—to be a part of seeing this happen for the church in Africa, so that your name will be glorified and your people will be pleased in you?
Special thanks to Gerry Mack and Tim Avery for transcribing the interview.